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Playing with Fire: Political Interventions, Dissident Acts, and Mischievous Actions at El Museo del Barrio

Declarations of dissent can manifest in many ways. Playing with Fire: Political Interventions, Dissident Acts, and Mischievous Actions, currently on view at El Museo del Barrio, surveys a range of Latin American and Caribbean artists who through their art practices have voiced their dissent from oppressive cultural forces. The curator, Nicolás Dumit Estévez, frames these artistic impulses as foundational to the history and spirit of El Museo del Barrio. Indeed the 1969 founding of the museum by Raphael Montañez Ortiz was itself an act of noncompliance with the mainstream art world, which at the time was largely unmotivated or unwilling to exhibit the work of Latino artists. El Museo is an institution, much like the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, that was formed to provide a platform for artists whose work and/or identity excluded them from opportunities in more established, heteronormative, and Eurocentric art venues.

Adonis Flores. Visionario, 2003; digital print; 36 x 24 in. Courtesy of Ben Rodriguez-Cubenas.

Adonis Flores. Visionario, 2003; digital print; 36 x 24 in. Courtesy of Ben Rodriguez-Cubenas.

Estévez’s framework proves fruitful, producing a show whose works span four decades, nearly mirroring the lifetime of El Museo. Themes of social irreverence, activism, and testimony connect works from different times and origins, without diluting the cultural specificity of each artist and intention. Undeniably, one of the exhibition’s great strengths is its underlying critique of conflating diverse Latino experiences and personhood in the United States; it accomplishes this without solidifying such tropes through reiteration.

Many works deploy dark humor to tackle overt political content. Visionario, a photograph by Adonis Flores, portrays a man in a trench, dressed in a camouflage uniform and holding two toilet-paper rolls to his eyes like binoculars. As there are few other signifiers in the image beyond the central figure, the piece can be read as satire of a militarized perspective that operates throughout the globe. Given Flores’s background as an artist born and working in Cuba, the photograph makes a more precise reference to Fidel Castro’s trademark uniform and parodies his professed vision for his people. Jessica Kairé also addresses symbols of combat through a disarming levity with her sculpture CONFORT Tropical Hand Grenade (Special Edition). The work’s plush fabric in vivid yellows, pinks, and greens recalls a stuffed toy, a commentary on the war zones that define the childhood of thousands all over the world. When read through the lens of Kairé’s Guatemalan descent, the work conjures the brutal history of the country’s civil war, a conflict catalyzed by a coup d’état funded and armed by the United States government, which led to the disappearance of tens of thousands of Guatemalan people, many of them children.

Jessica Kairé. CONFORT Tropical Hand Grenade (Special Edition), 2011; fabric and stuffing; 8 x 4 x 6 in. Courtesy of El Museo del Barrio.

Jessica Kairé. CONFORT Tropical Hand Grenade (Special Edition), 2011; fabric and stuffing; 8 x 4 x 6 in. Courtesy of El Museo del Barrio.

Some artists deploy a more documentary style to discuss the struggles of innocent and underserved populations. Carlos Ortiz was a photographer from the South Bronx who took his neighborhood as his subject matter. Untitled (Boy on Big Wheel) shows a young child on his toy vehicle on the sidewalk, smiling before a smoking pile of rubble and debris. This image literally and figuratively echoes the exhibition’s title and deftly functions both as a record of a particular community and time—a largely Puerto Rican neighborhood in the South Bronx in the ’70s—and as a potent emblem of the severe realities of urban neglect.

Alejandro Diaz. Dichos, 2004; installation view, Playing with Fire, 2014. Courtesy of El Museo del Barrio.

Alejandro Diaz. Dichos, 2004; installation view, Playing with Fire, 2014. Courtesy of El Museo del Barrio.

The complexities of naturalization and equality in US culture are an undercurrent in many of the works. Alejandro Diaz’s Dichos is a collection of hand-painted signs on cardboard. Each sign mixes commonplace sayings, advertisements, political statements, comedic misappropriations, and stereotypes of Latino or Chicano identity. Diaz held many of these signs—like “Wetback by Popular Demand,” “Make Tacos Not War,” “Never Mix, Never Worry,” and “No Shoes, No Shirt, You’re Probably Rich” outside elite and exclusive sites in New York City—while wearing either a suit or a Mexican mariachi costume. Each instance was an experiment in provocation, reminding a more privileged population of the gross inequities, bigotry, and danger experienced daily by many Hispanics. The work El Spanglish Sandwich by Adal Maldonado (known as ADAL), a ceramic plate printed with an image of rice and beans between two slices of white bread, is also born from a specifically US experience, that of the dual cultural allegiance and identity of Nuyoricans, or Puerto Ricans in New York.

Adal Maldonado (ADAL). El Spanglish Sandwich, 2000; printed ceramic plate and stand; 8-inch diam. Courtesy of El Museo del Barrio.

Adal Maldonado (ADAL). El Spanglish Sandwich, 2000; printed ceramic plate and stand; 8-inch diam. Courtesy of El Museo del Barrio.

Playing with Fire chronicles the artists’ shared impulse for protest and pushback without homogenizing their provenance or concerns. As such, it offers viewers unfettered space to commune with discourses of rebellion.

Playing with Fire: Political Interventions, Dissident Acts, and Mischievous Actions is on view at El Museo del Barrio through February 7, 2015.

 

 

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